Houellebecq's Imagined World

Interesting Paris Review interview with Michel Houellebecq, author of Soumission (Submission), a controversial "political fiction" about France in 2020, under the rule of a Muslim political party. Houellebecq is a professed agnostic (once a professed atheist), so I was surprised by some of his thoughts on religion. The interviewer says, "You could also say that what really interests those people is going to Syria, rather than converting." He responds, "I disagree. I think there is a real need for God and that the return of religion is not a slogan but a reality, and that it is very much on the rise." Further, "I remain in many ways a Comtean, and I don't believe that a society can survive without religion." I suppose that's rational from a sociological perspective, but my experience has been that most atheists and agnostics are hostile to religion and dismiss it outright. I guess I'll have to read some Comte.

Joris-Karl Huysmans, the French novelist, plays a central role in Houellebecq's novel. He says, "Huysmans [is a classic case] of a man who converts for reasons that are purely aesthetic. I almost have trouble imagining such an aesthete. For him, beauty was the proof. The beauty of rhyme, of paintings, of music proved the existence of God." I'll also have to read À Rebours, but from the ideas presented in Soumission -- this one about aesthetic conversion particularly -- I can't say I completely disagree with the views of this "neuralgic misfit" (New Yorker).

Houellebecq's firmly anti-Enlightenment beliefs are completely antithetical to mine, but as someone who is interested in religion as a cultural phenomenon, I enjoyed his book and have spent some time thinking about the imagined world in which a Muslim party rules France and an alliance between Catholics and Muslims is possible. It seems unlikely to me, but we do live at a time when the seemingly impossible -- for better or worse -- becomes reality.